AUGUST 18, 2010
When I interviewed Alex Aja (along with several cast members – watch the videos HERE) for Piranha 3D, I asked if he purposely set out to do something fun for a change, as his other films were entirely humor/levity free. But he was quick to correct me, saying that the film was fun but still very intense and scary, like his others. Well either he was trying to make sure his core fans still turned out to see the film, or he’s just daft – this is one of the least “scary” or “intense” horror films I’ve ever seen. The killer fish action is pure, crowd-pleasing, stand-up-and-cheer fun and nothing else; episodes of CSI carry more tension.
I’m not sure if a scary approach would have worked anyway, though. Even the piranha’s design is pretty goofy, like something Sam Raimi might toss at Bruce Campbell in an Evil Dead lake scene. So I’m not sure if I could ever be truly scared or even concerned for a character being menaced by them, even if the movie might as well have listed its cast in order of their deaths, since every single character that you think will die dies, and every single character that you think will live lives. The only wild card is Kelly Brook, who plays one of Jerry O’Connell’s “stars” (he plays a Joe Francis type), but doesn’t seem as vapid as the other girl, and she’s nice to the main kid’s little sister. Also she’s quite possibly one of the hottest women on the planet, so you can see them wanting to keep her around for a possible sequel. On the other hand, she gets naked (in the film’s most unique, out-there scene) and the main kid has another love interest, so she’s got the deck stacked against her. Everyone else, however – you’ll know whether or not they survive from the second they’re introduced.
And that’s a shame, considering Aja’s usual tendency to kill whoever the hell he feels like, even if they’re nice people (i.e. Amy Smart in Mirrors, Kathleen Quinlan in The Hills Have Eyes, etc). If he truly wanted this movie to be intense, he could have thrown us a curveball every now and then. I mean, there are two little kids – do they BOTH need to survive? Interestingly, the film was set to be directed by Chuck Russell at one point, and his remake of The Blob is a perfect example of how to kill off safe characters and thus make the film feel more terrifying. Hell, he did it twice – first 80s dreamboat Donavan Leitch bites it in the first act, and then he kills one of the two little horror nerd kids later. At that point, I’m worried for Shawnee Smith, I’m worried for Kevin Dillon. That was never the case here; even when a major character is in the water, I knew she’d be rescued without as much as a single bite.
Speaking of bites, the KNB work here is terrific. The attacks/kills might be largely silly fun, but it IS kind of dark to see all these poor bastards pulled out of the water missing limbs and giant patches of skin on their torsos. Greg Nicotero even has a cameo carrying one unfortunate sod who won’t be walking around anytime soon. As with the original, there’s no clear indication whether many of the victims are dead or injured, we just see people being pulled out. For the most part, only named characters (i.e. people you recognize) get definitive death scenes. Well, most of them do – one major character played by a familiar face simply disappears from the boat at one point, and we see their skeleton later on (note – according to this interview with Devin at Chud, the scene was cut due to effects headache issues and will be on the DVD, sort of). The movie is only 82 minutes with (lengthy) end credits, so why they cut this death is beyond me – you can’t blame it on time constraints. The awesome Alien-inspired shot from the end of the trailer is also MIA.
Then again, maybe these scenes just couldn’t be retrofitted for 3D for whatever reason. Because, despite what some misinformed people will tell you, this is NOT a true 3D film. It was shot with the same traditional cameras everyone uses, and the 3D effect was added later. This is similar to the approach taken with Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender, with the only difference being that 3D was planned all along, so it’s less headache and nausea inducing than the 3D versions of those films. But just as you cannot squeeze blood from a stone, you CAN NOT turn a 2D image into a proper 3D one, regardless of how much you “planned” for it. The visual information simply isn’t there.
The main problem is the fact that people move - they have hair that’s constantly blowing around, loose clothing, and are themselves moving (side to side, front and back) at all times. As a result, there’s a blurry halo around all living objects, as well as some weird artifacting around things like ears and loose hair. Plus, the 3D converters, in their attempt to give depth to the shots, go overboard more often than not, so people will appear to be too far behind other characters, or too close to others. At one point, Ving Rhames is seemingly standing in midair in front of the boat he’s supposed to be standing on – this is not something you will see in a true 3D movie (visit this website for a list!). Hell, characters actually disappear entirely at times! The little sister of McQueen’s annoying character is walking through some tall grass, and she just sort of fades out and in. I have no idea how the hell they let this sort of crap slide, but it’s going to kill the 3D resurgence before any true 3D movies come along (despite the overload of 3D films, since Avatar, there has only been one live action film shot with actual 3D cameras – Step Up 3D).
So my advice is to see it in 2D if you can (on movietickets.com, it’s actually a separate listing), though it’s hard to find them (I checked around Boston – my old home – and there are absolutely none). Because I truly think I would have enjoyed the movie even more if I wasn’t constantly being distracted by gonzo, Escher-esque 3D errors (take a careful look at the stomach area of the girl in the floating tube). Then again, it is a testament to how amazing the big attack on the lake sequence is, because no amount of bad 3D could keep me from laughing and cheering every few seconds as a swarm of piranha wreak havoc on a bunch of drunken douchebags (way more awesome than families trying to enjoy a shitty water park, as in the original). As I said, the anonymous characters don’t really get death scenes too much; it’s more about the general mayhem. In fact, most of the money shot kills aren’t even directly caused by fish – out of control boats seem to kill more people than the damn piranhas. But it doesn’t matter – the blood (and boobs) fly left and right for what seems like ten straight minutes, and it is all glorious. It’s actually a bit of a downer when they return to the other folks, who are on a sinking boat in another area of the lake.
Speaking of which, while the actual story is completely different (it’s the correct approach to a remake – same story, different execution), the beats are very similar. It opens with a Jaws reference, introduces our characters as the fish get loose and cause a few isolated deaths, and then all hell breaks loose around the 50 minute mark or so. And again, our male/female hero team goes from one attack to another. However, in Joe Dante’s original, they dealt with the smaller problem (the kids at the camp) and then went on to the main event (the water park). Here they go the other way – they go from this amazing, carnage heavy frenzy to this rather tame capsizing boat sequence, where there are only a few characters (most of them the aforementioned safe folks) and about as many fish.
Worse, these parts have some truly pointless and boring “human drama”. I get that you need to characterize these folks a bit, but are a mother and son really going to argue about being responsible while standing on a sinking boat (as his girlfriend is threatened by both piranha AND drowning in the galley, which is where the hole is). This sort of thing would be a groaner even in a regular movie; it’s even more unwanted when we’re watching it instead of seeing a bunch of drunken frat guys get slaughtered in the other area. I really wish they had somehow swapped the events, or at least cut back and forth between them until the very end. Speaking of which, the very last shot of the movie has a great visual gag, but considering the movie’s lack of any real surprises, I wish it wasn’t just a gag and actually a plot point (and again, the movie hardly overstays its welcome – one could conceivably see it as the end of the 2nd act of a 105 minute film).
And you gotta love the ensemble cast here. Elisabeth Shue gets top billing, but doesn’t really get more screen time than Adam Scott (who steals the movie, easily), O’Connell, or McQueen. I would have liked a bit more with Christopher Lloyd or Ving Rhames, and Richard Dreyfuss’ part is so small they might as well haven’t even mentioned it beforehand, but seeing all of these folks in one movie is an achievement in itself. And they each get some great moments – Scott, usually known for his comedic stuff, actually proves to be an able action hero (his slight resemblance to Ashton Kutcher got me thinking – if he was in Killers, I probably would have seen it). Ving of course gets to be the big badass with a boat motor, and Eli Roth makes the most of his cameo as the wet t-shirt contest judge (and suffers a fate that should please both his fans and his critics).
Another thing I liked was that the fish were not the result of some botched experiment or something, as is usually the case. Thus, apart maybe from O’Connell, who’s really too goofy to hate much (he has the greatest final line in horror movie history), there are no “human villains” here. The pace may lag at times, but it’s not because of being over-stuffed with plot – everything is there to get us to that big moment on the lake. And it doesn’t hurt that the explanation for what they are is delivered by Christopher Lloyd in full on crazy doctor mode – the audience actually cheered when he first appeared.
Ultimately, the movie delivers exactly what you want (boobs, blood) and not much else. It’s nice to see Aja broadening his horizons a bit, but they might as well have just hired some TV director to do this, because Aja’s presence elevates expectations, and it’s pretty obvious no one besides KNB was interested in going the extra mile (unless you count the 3D converter people – I don’t blame them for the glitches – it’s just something that cannot be done in any completely satisfactory way). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the talent involved could have delivered those cheap thrills AND some scares/surprises on top of it. It’s the best film to bear the Piranha name since Dante’s, but this could have easily been a remake that tops its original, instead of one that merely lives up to it.
What say you?
P.S. I don’t want to spoil the particulars, but there’s a terrific callback to the propeller line from Jaws – it’s a perfect reference in every way, and probably the wittiest moment in the film (though I was also partial to Eli Roth referring to a woman’s breasts as “Danny Devitos”).